Bella Morina, seen here with her son Aleks, left, and daughter, Bella, right, was known for her playful sense of humor. CONTRIBUTED

Ciao Bella Salon & Day Spa co-founder and co-owner Bella Morina gave amazing hugs. Clients said that when they walked in, she would make people feel instantly at home.

In her bright, plant- and mirror-filled spa, she would squeal excitedly, take patrons into her arms and say, “Hey, how are you doing?” 

No matter what kind of day she was having, she made her clients feel like they were the center of her world. And then, if she sensed they needed a longer talk — say, a bride anxious about wedding plans — she would invite them to sneak outside with her and sit for a spell on the back porch.

“Don’t worry, by the next wedding, we will get it right,” Morina would say with a wink, and the bride would laugh.

Her strength, kindness and humor seemed to know no bounds — which explains the shock flooding the comments on the spa’s Facebook post announcing Morina’s unexpected passing, at age 48 on Nov. 7, of breast cancer.

“This is heartbreaking,” said one mourner. “Bella was one of the kindest people I have had the pleasure of knowing.” 

She shared an uncommon bond with her sister, Gilda Rroshi. As family friend Olta Andoni said at the Nov. 19 funeral service for Morina at First Baptist Church, the two women came as a package. 

“You get one friend, you get another amazing friend,” Andoni said. 

Together, the striking duo — Morina with raven hair, and Rroshi with a headful of red curls — immigrated to the U.S. from Albania, raised their children, co-founded Ciao Bella and created a successful business over 19 years. 

Morina was a fighter. Rroshi described to Keys Weekly a childhood with hard knocks behind the Iron Curtain in Albania. But they never felt like victims. A saving grace was their grandmother, who was a naturopathic midwife and, by lovingly sharing her self-care remedies, inspired their careers as licensed estheticians.

“We’ve always been able to see the light,” she said. “Whenever we fell on our faces, we would get back up.”

Seeking safety after the Albanian civil war, the women came to the U.S. in their 20s. They eventually settled in the Keys and juggled caring for family, nursing studies and their jobs. Morina worked at Paul Joseph Salon, located where Ciao Bella is now. 

As was her way, Morina hit it off with her bosses, who trusted her with many aspects of their salon. In 2004, they confided that they were selling their business. Would she want to buy it?

“Bella called me and said, ‘We should do this,’” recalled Rroshi. 

The sisters stopped their nursing classes and made the jump.

“We bought the business first, then the building, and everything changed,” said Rroshi, who was sitting on a couch in the spa area. The lighting was comfortingly low and the classical music was soothing; a selection of teas were set out for clients. In the apothecary room, tables displayed essential oils, candles, soaps, creams and perfumes next to crystal-laden candelabras.

“We expanded and created an institution of curated self-care and wellness, as a portal to self-love,” she said.

Customers responded to the spa’s cozy elegance. Over time, Morina’s daughter, Dea, and husband, Richie, joined the team to help run Ciao Bella. 

Morina also leaves behind her parents, Didi and Bill; her son, Aleks; her daughter Dea’s son, Jaxson; nephews Henri, Jonathon and K.C.; nieces Skyla, Eris and Cindy; her brother, Ermal Nallbani, and sister-in-law Isida; sister Ina Nallbani; and Rroshi’s fiance, Michael Reckwerdt.

Morina was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the pandemic. Seeing her indomitable spirit, the family never considered that she would lose her battle to the disease. She chose to work throughout treatment and, despite being at stage 4, was never bitter. 

“She would say, ‘I don’t feel unprivileged, because I have the privilege to fight,’” Rroshi said.

In her ICU hospital bed during her final days, rather than focus on her own pain, she wanted to comfort her sister. 

“She said to me, in our mother tongue, ‘I am calm. I am okay,’” said Rroshi, with emotion. “She was letting me know that she had no worries and her love is here to stay. This was something she practiced every day. Her vibration was so high — people resonated and felt uplifted. Bella was my person. I will never have enough time to talk about how much I love her.”

The day before Morina passed, she was unable to speak and gestured toward her phone. The family watched as she summoned her strength to hold it and type. Her note said: “I love you all.”

At the memorial service, her daughter made a declaration from behind a microphone. 

“I am Bella Dea Morina,” she said, firmly. The church sanctuary was quiet and mourners wiped their tears. “I will carry on her legacy with all the strength and grace she gave me. I am my mother’s daughter.”

Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.